Genome Sequencing

Getting to know you, like never before!

By: Timothy Moonstone
Having acquired her Ph.D. at Cornell University, Doctor Karen E. Nelson joined the J.Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) legacy organization at The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland. Thereafter, she was named Director of the (JCVI) in Rockville in 2009. Today she services as President of the bicoastal organization and routinely commutes between both campuses, one in Rockville, Maryland and the other La Jolla, California.

The J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a not-for-profit research facility is home to approximately 250 scientists dedicated to the advancement of the science of genomics; the understanding of its implications for society and the communication of those results to the scientific community, the public and policy makers.

Doctor Nelson is one of the leaders in the fields of microbial and metagenomic research, having significantly advance the cataloging and understanding the microbes that inhabit the human body. Among her achievements, she published the first human micro biome study in 2006. She also leads the Human Microbiome Program at Human Longevity Inc., in La Jolla.

Q: With your childhood years in Jamaica, one pictures fields of sugarcane, banana plantations and miles of sandy beaches. Where did you acquire the drive to reach Cornell?
A: My Dad was a Rhodes Scholar and my Mom a Jamaica scholar. We grew up in a household where education was important. My parents had studied in England, however, I decided on Cornell because it was deemed the best for life sciences. Initially, I had planned on becoming a veterinarian, however during pre-vet it became obvious that I was not comfortable dealing with suffering animals, thus change my focus.

Q: What led you to genome research?
A: It began with the study of bacteria, which led to defining their genetic structure thereby leading to genome research.

Q: Why J. Craig Venture Institute?
A: There were at the cutting edge of research some 21 years ago and remain so with a staff retention that averages many years. J. Craig Venter was a maverick scientist who was leading the genome revolution.

Q: What are the mechanics behind cataloging the DNS of a fruit fly when one can hardly see them?
A: It is a process from which the researcher learns basic genome structure. You put the fly into a test tube, separate the component parts to drill down to basic cells ad from these tiny components pull of the genome.

Q: How does Genome Research differ from DNA Research?
A: It's the same technology, rather than focusing on a single gene, genome research covers the entire body, be it plant, animal, human or bacterial.

Q: Were the 90's a time for major advances in research?
A: There were major advances in technology during that decade, which allowed us to speed the process and delve deeper into our research.

Q: Was computerization the catalyst that led to greater discoveries and understanding?
A: Certainly one of them. It gave us the opportunity to mine the data at warp speed and with that cover more ground in less time.

Q: Part of your research has been on microbes that inhabit the body. Is that a good thing?
A: Absolutely. About 10 years ago, my team discovered that more bacteria live on us than the number of cells that we could call our own. We need that bacteria to help digest our food and strengthen our immune system. Healthy bacteria is crucial to a healthy life.

Q: What exactly is Genome Sequencing?
A: In simple terms, it is where we take the DNS from cell and place it within a technological device to identify what each piece of DNA does for the body.

Q: DNA research has made a huge impact on evidence within the courtroom. Has it has a similar impact on disease and health care?
A: Yes. Think about breast cancer. You can check if a daughter has the same genes and can begin preventive measures. We can now detect much of what previously was unknown and the discoveries continue to produce results with advanced research.

Q: What are some of the more dramatic results from the knowledge gained thus far?
A: Anywhere from understanding human migration to an understanding why certain people are more susceptible to diseases than others.Observing how certain strains of bacteria are mutating and becoming stronger, allowing us to find ways to combat their impact. As one knows, when it comes to an emerging  infectious bacteria, it is of major importance to continue to be a step ahead in being able to treat and hopefully cure some of what now are major ailments.

Q: Will research eventually contain and even eliminate disease or accelerate the bodies healing process when injuries occur?
A: Yes, but it will be a combination of advancement in technologies working with the discoveries in genetic research that will together make the greatest impact.

Q: How far along are we to pugging ourselves in to find out how things look?
A: We already can do a very personalized evaluation of an individual. The Human Longevity Inc., in La Jolla has introduced the Health Nucleus, which can perform a complete health analysis of an individual including whole genome, micro biome and circulating metabolites. There are kits now on the market at a relatively low cost, however, they provide a very limited scope of the genome makeup and disease risk.

Q: Traditionally, these advances have taken years to accomplish, yet we see new developments so frequently. What ethical concerns do you see on the horizon?
A: Confidentiality of data may well be at the forefront.

Q: Is there a regulation established to oversee these concerns?
A: Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) was passed in 2008 and HIPAA protects the privacy of each individual.

Q: What do you see as the greater accomplishments on the horizon?
A: I think that we are going to seem much greater results for an even longer and healthier life. Each of us may well have more time to fulfill our bucket list.

Q:What are the greater challenges?
A: Funding is the greatest challenge. It takes enormous resources to maintain an active lever of research.Grants from the government simply do not suffice and it takes an informed and generous contribution from community support to make consistent headway in understanding and improving life for everyone.

Q: Can you ever imagine having a more satisfying career?
A: Growing up on a relatively small patch of earth in Jamaica, attending and acquiring a Doctorate at Cornell, taking title as President at JCVI, and more recently being admitted to the National Academy of Scientists is as good a start as I could have imagined.